12 Step Groups: Twelve Objections and Twelve Responses

"12 Step" groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) have helped millions of people heal from a wide range of problems such as alcohol and drug dependence, compulsive overeating, sexual addiction, excessive spending, compulsive gambling and many other issues that impair the ability to live a healthy and balanced life. These free and confidential self-help groups are a rich resource for guidance, support, inspiration and accountability. The benefits they provide include those which are generally unattainable from any other source, including professional counseling.

Yet many people refuse to attend 12-step meetings, including those who would benefit the most by doing so. This reluctance tends to be based on one or more fairly common objections, many of which stem from misconceptions about the nature of 12-step groups. In an effort to provide some much-needed clarity on the subject, here are twelve commonly used arguments against attending 12-step groups and responses that address each concern.  

1. 12-step groups refer to a person being “powerless” and needing to “surrender”. These are just excuses for a lack of personal responsibility and will-power.  

Actually, the 12-step approach, by using these and similar terms, advocates personal responsibility on the deepest possible level. The first of the twelve steps requires a person to admit being unable (i.e. “powerless”) to stop engaging in a specific behavior despite repeated and sincere efforts to do so. This can be an extremely difficult acknowledgment for many people to make, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Breaking the tenacious grip of denial to fully accept this humbling truth is therefore an extremely courageous act of personal responsibility that is often a pivotal turning point in a person’s life.

Likewise, it is necessary to “surrender” the cherished myth of self-control in order to accept the need for the sustained effort a successful recovery process requires. To be "powerless” is therefore not synonymous with helplessness, and “surrendering” has nothing to do with giving up the need to exert tremendous personal effort. This is the first of many intriguing paradoxes related to the 12-step recovery process: the act of admitting defeat is necessary to access a source of power sufficient to overcome the reign of addiction.

2. The 12-step approach often talks about "God" or a "Higher Power", which turns me off. I'm not into religion.

A major objection many people have against 12-step programs is the frequent use of spiritual language and concepts. Over half of the actual twelve steps reference either "God", “a power greater than ourselves" or a "spiritual awakening". People without traditional religious beliefs are often deeply troubled by the use of such concepts. To confound this dilemma, despite the contention of its supporters that the 12-step process is “spiritual, not religious”, some meetings traditionally conclude with a prayer of Christian origin. It can therefore be an exceedingly difficult challenge for a person without a theological value system to accept the concept of a “power greater than ourselves” and especially the use of the word “God”.

A short history lesson is necessary in order to appropriately address this issue. The 12-step approach was adopted in the 1930’s from a Christian version of a universal set of principles for positive life change. The core concepts of this philosophy include the admission of a personal inability to stop destructive behavior; acknowledgment of a need for assistance; the practice of humility, rigorous honesty and ongoing introspection; the recognition and restitution of harm done to others; and a commitment to assisting those experiencing similar problems. These principles ultimately transcend religious constraints and are invaluable traits for anyone, regardless of the pious phraseology in which they were initially presented to the founders of A.A. Like any historically significant document, the words originally used to express these ideas are not amenable to modification despite any secular objections.

However, the effective utilization of these concepts does not require a theistic belief system. The admission of a need to depend on a power greater than an individual is fundamentally the simple recognition that will-power alone, no matter how sincere, is ultimately insufficient to successfully overcome addictive behavior. The essential premise of the entire 12-step process is that some people are irrevocably incapable of sustaining abstinence from a pattern of behavior that is ultimately detrimental to their well-being. The only solution to this dilemma must by necessity involve a source of power more effective than what those individuals possess. Despite the monotheistic terms permeating the 12-step paradigm, such a greater or "higher” power is capable of a very broad interpretation. For instance, an often-cited aphorism in Alcoholics Anonymous is that the initials "G.O.D." can easily stand for "Group Of Drunks" or "Good Orderly Direction".

Thus, regardless of what many adherents proclaim, belief in the concept of God is not necessary for the 12-step approach to bring tremendous gains to a person who accepts at the deepest possible level the unequivocal need to rely upon (i.e. “surrender to”) sources of strength and direction that aren't self-directed.  Nevertheless, it is certainly true that the vast majority of 12-step group participants enthusiastically ascribe to a celestial or divine interpretation of this “higher power”. However, the core 12-Step literature contains numerous admonishments against attempts to impose any specific set of beliefs on another person. The inherent tension between these two seemingly contrasting values is another of the many paradoxes of the 12-step program, and one that admittedly requires considerable and ongoing effort to reconcile. Even people who possess traditional religious beliefs frequently find that the approach to spirituality presented in 12-step recovery challenges their most basic assumptions about the nature of faith. Finally, if a meeting includes a prayer a person opposes, it’s perfectly acceptable to not participate in it. Nobody will care.

3. I hear that some people attend these meetings for years. Haven’t they just switched their dependency to the group?

Not everybody attends 12-step meetings for a long time, but there are several reasons for those who do. To start, it's a wise investment to continue a course of action that consistently yields a positive return. A person with kidney failure doesn’t stop going to dialysis because the treatment is working. Since the possibility of resuming addictive behavior is generally considered to be a life-long risk, ongoing preventive effort is an extremely worthwhile investment. In addition, a core 12-step principle is the importance of helping someone who is struggling with addiction by passing along the central tenets of recovery to them. This assistance, popularly called “giving it away to keep it", is beneficial not only to a person new to the program but also to the one whose life has already been vitally transformed by the recovery process.

Along with the above benefits, many people find themselves greatly enjoying the fellowship derived from regularly attending meetings with others they have come to know and care about. This sense of belonging can be very affirming to a person accustomed to the isolation and estrangement of addiction. It’s yet another paradox of the 12-step program that people from all walks of life can develop a deep appreciation for each other without regard to residence, occupation or last name. Finally, even if attending meetings regularly can somehow be considered as a substitute dependency, a person could do far worse than fostering reliance on a source of abundant support, wisdom, camaraderie and good humor.

4. I don't have a big problem -- certainly not an addiction -- so I don’t need to attend 12-step groups.

This is great news! However, it's common for many people to initially under-estimate the severity of difficulty they may have with a mood-altering substance or behavior. It’s easy to generate countless examples that suggest a problem doesn’t exist: “I don’t do it every day”, “I have friends a lot worse than me”, “I just like to have a good time”, etc. While such protestations may be based on objective evidence, they are so predictable that they practically constitute a symptom in themselves. The stakes are often very high to make such an important decision prior to careful examination. It can be very instructive to sit in on several meetings in order to make a more informed decision about whether further attendance would be useful. Although a great many 12-step groups are intended only for people who desire personal change, it’s generally understood that someone attending for the first few times may not yet be ready to decide if this is the place to be. There’s still another A.A. saying that “most people aren’t here by mistake.”  

5. I can't stand all of the peculiar language, concepts, structure, and ritual in those meetings.

It would be unusual to attend any gathering of diverse people and either relate to, agree with, easily understand or fully accept everything that is being said or done. One common suggestion in these types of situations is to "take what you need and leave the rest." Like a cafeteria line, nobody chooses every offering at once, if at all. It’s tempting to use some personally disagreeable component of a meeting as a reason to never return. A far more worthwhile endeavor is to listen for even one meaningful statement or idea that can turn out to have great value. Like a gold prospector, careful scrutiny will often reveal great wealth.  

6. I went to a couple of meetings and everybody just complained about their lives or talked badly about themselves.

Someone not accustomed to support groups may initially confuse vocal expressions of dissatisfaction with simply telling the truth. There are few opportunities in general society for a healthy and open discussion of personal shortcomings, while people in 12-step groups regularly reveal their intimate struggles with each other as an important method for reducing shame and isolation. However, it is exceedingly rare for negative commentary to dominate a meeting. Any such talk is almost invariably followed by a focus on the solutions people have found helpful in their personal journeys. Listening to the “experience, strength and hope” of many different people is an extremely instructive way to learn a variety of new and healthy ways to cope with many troubling life situations.  

7. There are people at those meetings who have done some pretty awful things. How are such losers supposed to help me? Any large group of people is going to represent a wide diversity of behavior. The common characteristic of addiction isn’t any specific act as much as the underlying powerlessness and unmanageability that finds expression across a wide spectrum of behavior.

Among the many people who attend 12-step groups are those who have indeed demonstrated profoundly impaired thought, emotions or behavior. Proximity to these individuals affords a person the opportunity to develop a deep sense of gratitude for possessing a more manageable set of challenges and to admire and even emulate the courage such people demonstrate by forthrightly facing their difficulties despite these handicaps.

8. Some people who attend these meetings never get better. I’ve heard the 12-step success rate is pretty low.

The same statement can be said for psychotherapy, medication, prayer or sincere personal resolve. No course of action is effective for everyone. Addiction is extremely resilient to any type of treatment or intervention, especially simple or short-term approaches. Also, many people who don't “get better” never fully engaged the entire recovery process. There is a famous phrase in A.A. that "half-measures availed us nothing." A person who only participates in a portion of the recommended course of action isn’t going to experience the extent of benefits that would occur by committing fully to the process. The expectation of achieving significant change without engaging in sustained effort is a form of magical thinking that does nothing but justify the contention that the process doesn’t work.

Finally, it’s important to define “success” as more than just the sustained abstinence from problematic behavior. Many people experience tremendous gains in their overall functioning regardless of whether their sobriety is continuous. Even occasional “slips” or full-blown relapses can reveal valuable lessons that ultimately benefit eventual success. This is the basis for the encouragement often heard in meetings to "keep coming back; it works if you work it."  

9. I just want to get better control over my behavior. I don't need the 12-step focus on improving my character.

A desire for straightforward behavior change is a wholly appropriate reason for attendance, despite the emphasis in 12-step groups on intense self-reflection and deep character change. Some people initially attend for the first reason but keep coming back upon the gradual realization that their addiction has obscured the existence of deeper problems. It’s generally accepted that a person's healthy emotional development often slows to a crawl once addiction takes root, and simple abstinence usually isn’t sufficient to reverse that process. True personal growth often requires a commitment to “recovery”, an active process of honestly evaluating the psychological, emotional, spiritual and relational nature of one’s essential character. A 12-step approach is capable of bringing this profound benefit to any person willing to commit to the process.

It’s common for a person new to the 12-step process to want to modulate rather than cease substance use. It is almost universally recognized that eventual full-blown relapse is a practically inevitable outcome of this approach. As A.A. members sometimes say, “one is too many and a thousand’s not enough”. Sobriety from drugs and alcohol is conditioned upon complete abstinence.

However, many people struggle with other types of compulsive behaviors that are just as highly reinforcing and difficult to manage but which are not amenable to complete cessation. Excessive reliance on food intake or sexual behavior, for example, are conditions in which an over-controlled approach constitutes the equally dysfunctional condition known as anorexia. The goal in these situations is to engage such activities in a balanced and emotionally healthy manner. This ever-shifting equilibrium can actually be more difficult to discern than complete abstinence, making the ongoing guidance available in 12-step groups especially helpful.  

10. The nearest 12-step meeting is too far or inconvenient for me to attend. While distance to a meeting may be a legitimate concern in some remote parts of the country, even sparsely populated locations are likely to have a 12-step community of some sort. A.A. meetings are by far the largest 12-step fellowship, but similar groups for issues such as compulsive sexual behavior, gambling, overeating, and spending are increasingly prevalent. Since the actual twelve steps are virtually identical regardless of the problem being addressed, "open" A.A. meetings are a convenient and appropriate resource if a support group for one of these kinds of issues isn’t available. And by the way, some people who complain about the inconvenience of attending a meeting never thought twice about spending similar amounts of time engaging in the behavior that resulted in the need for help.  

11. Someone at a meeting might recognize me and I don’t want anyone to know my business. It is conceivable but generally unlikely that a person will attend a 12-step meeting and recognize a neighbor, co-worker or acquaintance. The initial surprise at this encounter is often followed by an enhanced sense of normality at discovering the extent to which addiction truly is an “equal opportunity destroyer”. It can be greatly reassuring to learn about the paramount value of absolute anonymity in 12-step meetings. The mutual respect, acceptance and sense of kinship in this fellowship, which can hardly be described to someone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand, is based in large measure on the confidentiality every attendee consistently and conscientiously practices.  

12. I'm just not a group person. Many people who struggle with addictive or other poorly managed behaviors live with a significant degree of emotional isolation despite any surface appearance of social ease they demonstrate. It therefore should be no surprise that an initial feeling of unease in a group setting is common.

There is no requirement in 12-step meetings to share personal information, interact at all with anyone or even look another person in the eye. Many people who start their 12-step experience in such a manner gradually develop a desire to be sociable and emotionally available, especially during the various informal conversations that take place after the group ends (often referred to as the "meeting after the meeting"). Nevertheless, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit in the very back of the room, say nothing and leave immediately when the group ends.  

Conclusion

The above 12 concerns, which are usually expressed in a very sincere manner, can lead a person to reject the entire 12-step process before engaging in personal investigation to determine the extent to which they are false assumptions stemming from some combination of fear, denial, misconception or obstinacy.  

The only real way to gain an adequate understanding of the 12-step process is to give it a try. Since each meeting varies slightly in topic or structure, it can be very instructive to commit to attending a half-dozen meetings rather than just one. While not a requirement, some people who have suffered extremely dire consequences discover the discipline of attending 90 meetings in 90 days (“90 in 90”) to be transformative experience. Many people initially attend meetings with resentment or anxiety but then become willing to continue their involvement because of the many positive consequences they experience simply by listening to this room of wise and sober individuals.

12-step meetings are repositories of a tremendous range and depth of extremely helpful ideas for effective living. Attending them can be insightful, interesting, and even enjoyable. They operate with almost no rules or directives, relying instead on friendly suggestions and the sharing of personal experience about what has and hasn't worked for each person. The ability of this approach to replace the shame and stigma of addictive behavior with greater self-awareness, heightened self-esteem and better life choices is a truly remarkable and unprecedented development in human interaction. As a final paradox, while the meetings cost nothing the price for refusing to attend them can turn out to be astronomical.